In the 1970s, Britain’s fascist movement was growing in strength.
Coming together in 1967 under the leadership of AK Chesterton — himself a veteran of Oswald Mosley’s Nazi-aligned British Union of Fascists — disparate factions on the far right had united to form the National Front (NF): a newly coherent electoral force that would rapidly gain momentum in the decade that followed.
Contesting both local and national elections, the NF made alarming gains, capturing more than 16 percent of the vote in a 1973 by-election in the West Midlands constituency of West Bromwich and winning nearly 114,000 votes in the October general election the following year. Its most menacing encroachments, however, came in London. Throughout council elections in 1977, the NF would receive a significant share of the vote in several boroughs, including Bethnal Green (19.2 percent), Hackney South (19 percent), and Stepney (16.4 percent). Its gains were significant enough that Guardian reporter Martin Walker, in a 1977 book on the party and its growth, even speculated that it might “conceivably explode into power.”
The political ground in Britain seemed worryingly fertile for just such a development. Amid punitive austerity (from a Labour government, no less), faltering wages, and Britain’s recently Enoch Powell-ified discourse on race and immigration, the front’s xenophobic message was winning both Tory and Labour votes and securing new converts. Accounts of its membership differ, but one figure from the antifascist magazine Searchlight suggests it counted some 17,500 in its ranks by 1972, up from only 4,000 a few years prior. According to historian Richard Thurlow, the NF represented “an attempt to portray the essentials of Nazi ideology in more rational language and seemingly reasonable arguments” in an effort to “convert racial populists” into hardened practitioners of fascism.
Its bid at mainstreaming aside, the ideology and animating beliefs of the NF were avowedly fascistic, fusing white supremacist, antisemitic, and anti-black dogmas with various racist conspiracy theories. As their predecessors had once done in the 1930s, the NF’s leaders dreamt of burying Britain’s democratic, multicultural society and organized with this end in mind.
The Battle of Wood Green
By the mid-1970s the National Front was asserting its presence on Britain’s streets with increasing violence. As historian Andy Beckett describes:
There has always been a street-corner machismo to the National Front — not least from its links back to Mosley’s Blackshirts — but from 1974 onwards deliberately provocative marches through immigrant neighbourhoods, intimidating pavement meetings and other aggressive occupations of public spaces became key NF tactics. Brick Lane in east London, a narrow, busy, mainly Bangladeshi street close to several areas known for decades as centres of racist politics, was a frequent target.
A report published by a local trades council in East London observed that there seemed to be “more and more racists selling [fascist newspapers] National Front News and Spearhead each week on the corner.” One passage vividly describes a typical NF street action:
Skinhead youngsters, many wearing badges saying “NF rules OK,” NF T-shirts, or with copies of NF News in their pockets, had been gathering at the top of Brick Lane since about 11 AM… Some had come from Peckham, Ealing, Putney. Some came in minibuses… At about 12 noon… after an NF meeting…a group of white youths marched down the Lane…clapping and shouting “the National Front is a White Man’s front”…The police had all suddenly disappeared…[Then] 150 white youths ran down Brick Lane shouting “Kill the Black Bastards” and smashing the windows of a dozen shops and the car windscreens of Bengali shopkeepers. 55 year-old Abdul Monan was knocked unconscious by a hail of rocks and stones hurled towards his shop window…The police said the “spontaneous outbreak” happened just at the time they were changing their shift and they were totally unprepared.
Titled “Blood on the Streets: Racial attacks in East London,” the report recorded over two hundred similar incidents, including two murders, between January 1976 and August 1978 — a number of them directly attributable to fascist militants.
Given this context, April 23, 1977 would mark one of the most critical and decisive efforts by antifascist campaigners in their struggle against the National Front poison. Assembling a contingent twelve-hundred-strong, NF members planned to descend upon the diverse North London borough of Haringey, with the aim of marching from Ducketts Common (a large public park) down a busy high street packed with Saturday afternoon shoppers.
Alarmed at the planned fascist demonstration, local councillors called on London police to ban the march — a request they firmly denied. Nevertheless, by bringing together a diverse coalition of community groups, organizers reportedly put some three thousand counter-demonstrators into the streets, outnumbering the fascists more than two to one and preventing most from reaching a planned rally to be held at the endpoint of the march. According to historian Keith Flett, the confrontation was made possible by effective planning efforts during which organizers extensively debated strategy and tactics and pursued an aggressive local leafleting campaign.
Acting as a coordinator for the local council was Jeremy Corbyn, then a twenty-eight-year-old Labour councillor and trade union official. The borough’s representatives, even several Tories, proved united in their opposition to the NF, with fifty-four of sixty sitting councillors gathering on the day behind a huge banner reading, “Haringey Councillors Against Racism.”
Others within the large counterdemonstration included trade unionists, socialists, radicals, and community groups (including the Indian Workers’ Association and members of Rock Against Racism), some of whom confronted the fascists directly. As Socialist Workers Party activist David Widgery recalled in his book, Beating Time:
The Front…were faced with a determined opposition armed with smoke bombs, flares, bricks, bottles and planned ambushes…there was a spontaneous move to block the road and attack the Front…Conventional anti-fascist politicos had been augmented by North London gangs, rockabillies, soul girls and tracksuited Rastas…a squad of black kids accurately hurling training shoes borrowed from Freeman, Hardy and Willis…
Historian David Renton’s account also takes note of the counterdemonstration’s more confrontational elements, noting that while “Communists and churchmen addressed a rally at one end of Duckett’s Common, a contingent composed of more radical elements in the crowd broke away and subjected the NF column to a barrage of smoke bombs, eggs and rotten fruit.”
Some eighty-one people were arrested, seventy-four of them antifascists.
Reporting on the march on its front page in the following days, the local Hornsey Journal would carry a quote from Corbyn denouncing police passivity in the face of the fascist threat:
From Haringey Councillor Jeremy Corbyn on behalf of the organisers of the counter-demonstrations “Why did the police allow the National Front to march through the busiest shopping area of North London, an area populated by several of London’s largest immigrant communities? It must be clear from Saturday’s demonstration that there is the widest possible opposition to these modern day fascists. How much longer must it be before fascism is banned from our streets?”
Several months later at the Battle of Lewisham, organized antifascists would again challenge the NF — who, once again, would receive significant protection from London police. Taken together, the two confrontations contributed significantly to the demoralization of Britain’s fascist movement and, ultimately, to its decline as a political force.
In his influential 1979 essay “The Great Moving Right Show,” the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall cited the antifascist campaigns and direct actions of the late 1970s as a rare success story during a period otherwise characterized by left-wing retrenchment. Though there were certainly other contributing factors, the ensuing collapse of the NF’s electoral fortunes was swift and punishing, its total vote dropping to 27,065 nationwide by 1983 (down from 191,719). In Haringey, where it had previously secured 8 percent of the vote, its total dropped to under 3 percent in 1979, and by the following election it proved unable even to field a candidate.
Alongside the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, the confrontation at Wood Green was undoubtedly a formative moment in the struggle against fascism in Britain. Commemorating the events of April 23, 1977 on their fortieth anniversary two years ago, Corbyn himself would link those struggles to the present day:
What we did that day in 1977 should go down in history…a community stood up and said the racists shall not pass. In the atmosphere [in] so many communities across this country over the last few months, the growth of xenophobia, the rise of the far right all across Europe, the antisemitism, the Islamophobia, the hatred that has developed — I simply say that hatred is a waste of time [and] a waste of energy and saps the moral fiber of an entire community. Young people growing up together, understanding and proud of the diversity of their communities, achieves so much more…You can never compromise with intolerance. You can never compromise with racism.